It feels like it should be a simple enough premise in this day and age, with all the tech and experience at the industry’s disposal: “You play as a superhero.” And yet game after game after game has fumbled the ball, if not in actually allowing the player to feel super, then in allowing them to feel heroic. Prototype, the previous Infamous games, and Saints Row IV all tried their best to run that particular ball as far as they could during the last generation, and Infamous: Second Son might be the first game to actually spike it into the end zone.
Funny enough, much of where Second Son succeeds has to do with distancing itself not just from the previous games (the events that ended Infamous 2 are little more than a political backdrop for this one), but from the franchise’s DC Comics sensibilities, grounding it in something more closely resembling live-action Marvel, mixed in with the same punky sensibilities as last year’s DmC: Devil May Cry. After Infamous 2, Conduits all over the country have had their powers activated, and when they’re not being hated by society at large, they’re being rounded up by the Department of Unified Protection, tossed in cells to be poked and prodded at by scientists, or to just be locked up with the key thrown far, far away.
Unlike the previous installments, main character Delsin doesn’t start the game as any kind of famous, let alone infamous. He’s just a lanky, smartass Banksy imitator with a chip on his shoulder, and a long-suffering, milquetoast cop for an older brother who looks and sounds like Jon Hamm fallen into Uncanny Valley. After an encounter with an escaped Conduit, Delsin’s own power switches on; he can copy powers from other Conduits on contact, like a non-lethal variant of X-Men’s Rogue. Where the previous games tried to have the entire world hanging in the balance, Delsin’s main quest is surprisingly small. All Delsin wants is just enough power to go back and help his people after the DUP come rampaging through, but it’s his reaction to having more power at his disposal and the world’s reaction to him and his kind that expands the game’s scope, not the overarching plot itself. The post-Cole McGrath social landscape is present more as world-building and as a catalyst for Delsin, now a member of the persecuted, to make harder decisions than in previous games.
Yes, that means the Karma system from Infamous and Infamous 2 does return, but earning good or bad Karma is no longer a matter of healing the injured for blue points versus kicking newborn puppies into a burning orphanage for red points. Most of the activities you can do to score one for the evil team are along the lines of restraint versus rage. The climate around Second Son’s Seattle is one of conservative, Bible-thumping, anti-Conduit protesters, random gang violence against Conduits, and regular military harassment. It’s seductive as hell to hand out a super-powered beatdown to the intolerant, or to inspire other Conduits to let loose with the chaos, but it does nothing to prove the mob wrong, which makes living the super life so much harder. So, the alternative is to inspire hope or at least lighten the mood around the city, to show mercy even to the vicious. It’s still ultimately fairly binary in terms of what your choices earn you over the course of the game, but there’s a lot more gray area here than even before, and the “evil” choices feeling justified more often than not ask for much more complicated and satisfying decision making from the player.
Veterans of the previous games won’t have too much more to learn though. The core of Infamous as a gameplay experience is still here, though Delsin has more and cooler options for enemy disposal and transporting around Seattle than Cole ever did, especially once the new powers start stacking up, and Sucker Punch eases way back on the sections of confined space that made up the most frustrating parts of its predecessors. The world is here to encourage freedom of movement, and improvisation in combat, either by giving prime opportunities to try out the new, or with the surprisingly shrewd enemy AI giving you just enough foot-to-ass to make you raise your game. For once, a game’s marketing campaign seems totally apt: You’re here to enjoy your powers and even despite an occasional penchant for cheap hits, the game’s best set pieces are very much up to the task of allowing it.
The $64,000 question, however, is whether this is a good enough reason to run out and buy a PS4 if you haven’t already. There’s a lot here that’s hard to imagine the PS3 being capable of pulling off. The motion controls and the touchpad get a decent, well-integrated workout, world detail is staggering, and the particle and lighting effects of Delsin’s powers are breathtaking. Yet what brings it all together is actually the story itself, with some surprisingly strong character work and dialogue breathing life into what’s essentially an X-Men comic from 1994 writ large. As opposed to previous Infamous games’ gravelly voice contest, these are fully formed characters worth caring about, even if it’s just to hate the living hell out of one or two of them. This is the part it takes more than just hardware to pull off, and if all the current gen’s titles show Sucker Punch’s same commitment to getting story, gameplay, and the new shiny technology to play nice, we’ve got a great generation of stories ahead of us, and they’re only going to be available on current gen. In the meantime, we’ve got this one: a 15-hour power trip through the streets of Seattle, where the threat is believable, and the power to stop it rests solely, and gleefully, in the player’s hands.